Tuesday, September 19, 2006


Sorry, just realised that I had quoted from a private communication received from someone a while ago. This has now been removed and I will make sure it doesn't happen again.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Extremely disconnected thoughts (if Virginia Woolf were a blogger II) - Tagore, my great-grandmother, Brahmos and s. 377

Baghdad May 24 1932

The night has ended.
Put out the light of the lamp
of thine own narrow corner
smudged with smoke.
The great morning which is for all
appears in the East.
Let its light reveal us to each other
who walk on the same path
of pilgrimage.

- Rabindranath Tagore

I have just finished reading a biography of Tagore by Krishna Dutta & Andrew Robinson, and after following him around the world for 80 years and 370 pages, I unexpectedly burst into tears at the end. I'm weeping over my case studies. This is a serious methodological problem, some would say. (In order not to be intimidated by the stature of said case-studies, I have taken to calling them Robi-da and Habibi Edward.) After Robi-da died, mourners sang one of his songs at the tenth day ceremony. As with everything he wrote in Bengali, translation kills something; but since I have only ever known him in translation, here it is:

The ocean of peace lies ahead of me.
Sail the boat, O pilot
You are my constant companion now.
Take me in your lap.
Along our journey to the infinite
The pole star alone will shine.
Giver of Freedom
Set me free.
May your forgiveness and compassion
Be my eternal resources for the journey -
May the moral ties fall away,
May the vast universe
Hold me in embrace,
And with an undaunted heart
May I come to know the Great Unknown.

Whenever I read about Brahmos, I am reminded of my great-grandmother who died earlier this year. She wrote her autobiography a few years ago and ended it with a poem by Tennyson, followed by her inevitable 'Sri Ram Jaya Ram Jaya Jaya Ram'. Here it is:

Sunset and evening star
And one clear call for me
And may there be no moaning of the bar
When I put out to sea.
Twilight and evening bell
And after that the dark
And may there be no moaning sadness of farewell
When I embark.
For through from our voyage of time and space
The flood may bear me far
I hope to see my pilot face to face
When I have crossed the bar.

I have been thinking about Brahmos a lot lately, not least because of the influence of my subversive bhadramahila friend SNG. She informs me that when a group of Brahmos started agitating for the marriageable age for women to be raised to 14 sometime in the mid-19th century, they caused a great stir among the bhadralok. The Brahmo Samaj split into a radical 'progressive' faction pushing for the higher age of 14 and a more conservative lot who wanted to hang on to the old ways of child marriage et al. (In practice, the Brahmos always spanned a wide range of social tendencies from the highly Anglicised at one end to the staunchly nativist at the other.) What amazes me is that by the time my great-grandmother got married in 1933, even 14 would have been considered retrograde in families of the equivalent social class in South India.

When, last weekend, a group of eminent Indians signed a statement calling for the decriminalisation of homosexuality (a demand that I support and whose logical conclusion is full citizenship in every sense of the word for sexual minorities of all kinds), I could not help but wonder if they were the new Brahmos. Some will cringe at that comparison, but I don't mean it in a pejorative sense at all. The statement is a fabulous initiative and I fully support it. And this movement is undoubtedly different, for the 'Brahmos' are joined by some very non-Brahmos - hijras, kothis, sex workers, the very antithesis of the bhadralok. But the parallels are there and the parallels are striking. People sneer at us for pushing an 'elitist' cause. Perhaps we should just shrug that off as the epithet that has always been hurled at the Brahmos. But we also need to learn from the marginality of the Brahmos, from their failure to be 'organic' intellectuals in the Gramscian sense. Without the non-Brahmos, this will be another arrested passive revolution.

Press coverage in the Hindustan Times, Times of India, NDTV, New York Times, Guardian, Sydney Morning Herald, Peninsula Qatar, Zee News, Khaleej Times, Gulf Times, Scotsman, Reuters, Monthly Review and more.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

11 September 1906

[forward via Mamma. thanks!]

On 11 September 1906, nearly three thousand people (out of the Indian population of 18000 resident in Transvaal) filled the Imperial Theatre in Johannesburg.There were a few women too.There were Hindus and Muslims. There were Tamils,Telugus, Gujaratis and Hindi-speaking people. There were merchants, miners and lawyers as well as indentured labourers, rickshaw wallahs and pettyshopkeepers.

The meeting had been convened by Gandhi. The Transvaal government had proposed an ordinance requiring all Indians over the age of eight - women included - to register with the authorities, submit to finger-printing and accept a certificate which they were to carry with them at all times. Violators could be imprisoned, fined or deported, even if they had to leave their property or their business behind.

Sheth Haji Habib read out the resolution demanding non-compliance with the laws. Everyone was to consider taking a pledge with God as witness. Gandhi warned the audience. "To pledge ourselves or to take an oath in the name of God or with Him as a witness is not something to be trifled with." It was for each one to decide whether he had the inner strength to keep the pledge.
Gandhi warned the audience that they might be jailed. They might be beaten and insulted. They might go hungry. They might lose their jobs, and wealth. They might be deported. And the struggle might last years.

But Gandhi was certain that "so long as there is even a handful of men true to their pledge, there can be only one end to the struggle - and that is victory."

Everyone present rose, raised his hand and swore to God not to obey the proposed law.

The struggle took eight long years. As Gandhi had warned thousands filled the jails, many of them offering themselves for arrest immediately on release by leaving Transvaal and re-entering it. Striking miners were often whipped and beaten with sticks. But in eight years the masses obeyed Gandhi's call for complete non-violence. When the Government faced a railway strike, Gandhi withdrew the movement for that time.

Gandhi named the movement Satyagraha, or Truth-force, which to him was the same as "Love-force".

It was finally on 30 June, 1914, that Gandhi and General Smuts reached agreement, which in effect withdrew the odious law.

Gandhi himself had spent a total of 249 days in South African jails.

True to his character, Gandhi was neither resentful, nor did he embitter his adversary General Smuts. Before returning to India, Gandhi sent a gift toGeneral Smuts - a pair of sandals Gandhi had made in prison. In 1939, Smuts returned them to Gandhi as a gesture of friendship. He said: "I have worn these sandals for many a summer...even though I may feel that I am not worthy to stand in the shoes of so great a man. It was my fate to be the antagonist of a man for whom even then I had the greatest respect..."

Though Gandhi had done much in South Africa since 1893, this 9/11 was the true beginning of Civil Resistance applied practically and successfully. It was a 9/11 that stood for peace, non-violence and love. It was a method that won over adversaries. It won India its independence some three decades later.

Let us commemorate this centenary!

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Cosmopolitanism in the time of the Postcolonial: the sneak preview

Suketu Mehta’s racy, documentary-style novel about his return to the city of his youth begins, appropriately enough, with a vignette on house hunting. Yet house hunting is a rather ironic note on which to begin a thesis about cosmopolitanism. After all, Diogenes the Cynic whose apocryphal utterance – ‘I am a citizen of the whole world’ – is credited with ‘inventing’ cosmopolitanism, cared little for where he lived, sleeping out of doors even in cold weather and spending much of his life in a tub. For the Gujaratis of Dariya Mahal, however, this will not do. Home is a temple, its sanctity guarded via an elaborate set of understandings about purity and pollution. Cosmopolitanism at home is a threat. It portends the invasion of all sorts of destructive external influences – ‘the whole world’ – bringing in its wake miscegenation, meat eating and mishmash. The adolescent Mehta is fascinated by this outside world. For him, the ‘cosmopolitan’ girls are ‘up there’, unattainable, a different class. This cosmopolitanism reeks of sophistication and glamour. It is a world of exotic cocktails and magazines with leggy blondes on glossy covers. It is elite, well-travelled, jet-setting. Yet in addition to being all of these things, for the non-Gujaratis (of whatever class) of the world that Mehta describes – for the Bombay that is peopled by the likes of Salman Rushdie’s Everyman Saleem Sinai, or the residents of Rohinton Mistry’s Firozsha Baag, for Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains and the last remaining Bene Israel, for non-vegetarians and divorcees – cosmopolitanism is a refuge, an ethic that permits a sense of belonging in a place that they do not fully own. It is an ethic that permits 6.1 million passengers of these different persuasions to travel to work everyday on a hugely over-stretched suburban rail system, packed fourteen to sixteen bodies per square metre. It is an ethic that has broken down with frightening consequences in the past – but even when it has, not completely, so that Hindu householders have still hidden their Muslim friends from marauding Hindu mobs. Sometimes in Bombay, cosmopolitanism has been the difference between life and death.

The term ‘cosmopolitanism’ might best be understood as an instance of what William Connolly has called an ‘essentially contested concept’. Rather than being reducible to a single idea, ‘cosmopolitanism’ is better thought of as comprising a cluster of associations and connotations. Central among these is the notion of universal political community, in which guise cosmopolitanism is usually posited against less-than-universal forms of belonging and attachment – to the nation-state, for example. Only in the most extreme versions of cosmopolitanism does the existence of universal political community entail the disappearance of other communities. Leaving these aside, from the core ideal of universal political community might be derived a number of more specific normative ideas – a vision of how political relations between communities ought to be ordered, or rules about how global resources ought to be divided. Yet another derivative of the notion of universal community might be an ideal of how one might live within a heterogeneous community – an ethic that is commonly referred to as ‘multiculturalism’. Leaving aside the idea of political community altogether, the term ‘cosmopolitan’ also carries the connotation of ‘worldly’, of being worldly-wise, of knowing about the world and being familiar with it even if one lacks an emotional identification with, or attachment to, all of it. In this guise, the term might be attached to the imperial administrator, the frequent-flying business executive or the gap-year backpacker as easily as to the international drug smuggler or the United Nations employee. Tangential to these associations but reacting to them in many ways is a materialist critique that argues that the material preconditions for knowing about the world as a whole or feeling a sense of identification with it are available only to a privileged few. This injects into the cluster of associations, a connotation of elitism, even snobbery.

Friday, September 01, 2006

thought for the day

The Microsoft Word dictionary does not recognise the word 'commodification'. Hmmm...wonder why.

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